Columns / Discourse / April 17, 2013

An African storyteller: Chinua Achebe

Last month, a renaissance man passed away at the tender age of 82 — Nigerian Chinua Achebe, most popularly known for his debut novel “Things Fall Apart,” published in 1958, when the head of state was a white man named James Wilson Robertson.

Achebe was part of the last generation of Nigerian elites educated by the British. Born in 1930 to former Nigerian missionaries, he was the product of cultural and religious syncretism. Named Albert Chinualumogo Achebe, he was educated at very prestigious high schools and many of his classmates went on to dominate Nigerian politics, arts and academia.

Achebe’s magnum opus, “Things Fall Apart,” chronicles the unraveling of Okonkwo, an influential man in a 1890s Nigerian village. His quest to dispel his father’s weak legacy eventually leads to the death of his son-in-law, and during the ensuing banishment white missionaries arrive in the village. Okonkwo’s failure to adapt leads to his downfall — a preeminent lesson in the age of globalization.

Achebe was an intellectual giant, and as one of the first Africans to be published in English to an international audience, he had an intimate understanding of (de-)colonization and, more importantly, the agency, success and failures of Africans themselves. He consistently pushed for the publication and dissemination of African arts; Nigerian sophomore Olaloye Oyedotun considers Chinua Achebe “a great wordsmith and a literary icon.”
What Achebe understood best was the power of the narrative and storyteller, as well as the importance of the questions of authorship; who, when and how stories have been written and told. Reflecting on the international response to “Things Fall Apart,” he had this wonderful anecdote:

“…the whole class of a girls’ college in South Korea wrote to me, and each one expressed an opinion about the book. And then I learned something: they had a history that was similar to the story of “Things Fall Apart” — the history of colonization … So these people across the waters were able to relate to the story of dispossession in Africa.”

Achebe’s greatest success was inspiring generations of storytellers, Africans that would write their own stories, rather than have them written by arrogant and brash Europeans. But “Things Fall Apart” and Chinua’s countless other novels, poems, essays and short stories are not just for the once-colonized mind: they provide fresh insight for all. In the words of freshman Andrew Marr,

“It’s a way of showing the humanity of both Africans and the imperialists. Okonkwo falls from grace, but also the first batch of colonizers were very human and wanted to spread the love of Jesus. By writing in English, displaying the cultural practices of the Igbo, you’re showing it’s not primitive or ethnocentric. In fact it’s very systemized in structure, and sheds light on Africa in a way we never really experienced since [the slave memoirs of] Equiano.”

Additionally, Achebe was not here to romanticize his continent. And much like Okonkwo, Chinua Achebe was not perfect. Oyedotun shed light on his legacy back home: “He was a very divisive figure in Nigeria. His recent book [on the Biafran War] created a lot of controversy. It highlighted the fact the Igbo had a stranglehold on power in Nigeria, and were proud of that fact. He has a pride in being Igbo, and while I respect all the tribes, it’s a little arrogant.”

Nonetheless, Achebe remains a muse to thousands of writers and artists, African and otherwise. One of his best-known successors is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a young Nigerian whose book “Half of a Yellow Sun” has gained enormous acclaim for its representation of the Biafran War. She also has a fantastic 10-minute TED talk on Achebe’s legacy and “The Danger of a Single Story” —  highly recommended, and available here.

Harshly critical of the former Nigerian military dictatorship and Nigerian elites, Achebe left the African elite with this particular tidbit: “Democracy is not something you put away for 10 years, and then in the 11th year you wake up and start practicing again.We have to begin to learn to rule ourselves again.”

Tags:  Achebe Chinua icon literature Nigeria obituary Okonkwo Oyedotun Things Fall Apart

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Tom Courtright
Tom Courtright is a columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering Africa. He grew up in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania and is currently studying international relations, history and journalism. He begins his volunteer term with Peace Corps in September 2014, on the Pacific island of Fiji.

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